The Letter, 2020 First Place Adult Divison

By Les Tanner

They say that truth is stronger than fiction. Or maybe that’s stranger than fiction. I’ll have to look that up before I finish this. Whatever the case, I’ll let you be the judge.

I was just a kid when all this happened. I’m older now, but if you knew exactly how much, you’d probably say something like, “You’re too old to be sitting around thinking up stuff to bore everybody with.”  That’s the way it’s always been with me. Hasn’t changed me one whit though, I’m happy to say.

Anyway here’s the story.

It was on a Saturday in June—the 27th to be exact—and was one of those things called “momentous occasions,” mainly because it was Grandma Ashton’s 80th birthday as well as the 60th anniversary of the day that she got married. Yep, she got married on the day she turned twenty. So it was a really big doings, what with most of her family gathered around. Even her eighty-five- year-old brother Frank came, all the way from New Hampshire. On the bus. My folks were there plus lots of aunts and uncles and cousins and the like. Some of them I’d not ever seen before.

The party was outdoors, in Pioneer Park on the hill at the east edge of town here, and we’d had about as much fried chicken and potato salad and baked beans and birthday cake and cider as we could hold. We were all just sitting around when one of my cousins, Felicity, who was always asking the wrong kind of question, piped up. Felicity’s mom and dad tried to stop her from going on, but all she said was,  “Grandma, tell us about Grandpa Ashton.”  That made everybody relax a little.

Grandma might have been old but she was still as sharp as a tack. Pretty spry, too, but she needed a wheelchair to get around sometimes. Like when she was shopping. They didn’t have those electric carts in the stores then, like they do now. She was a good story-teller and wasn’t afraid to stretch the truth a little. Or a lot. I never could tell. I don’t think most of the others could tell, either.

Anyway, she said, “What do you want to know?”  The answers were things like “What did he look like?” and “What kind of job did he have?” and “Was he rich?” (Felicity came up with that one) and “How did you meet?”

“We met at the University up in Moscow,” said Grandma. “I was a junior, taking courses in Home Ec. I’d seen this man a few times before. He was tall and handsome and had curly blond hair. Someone had said he was a freshman. He looked too old for that, but he’d grown up on a farm east of Cottonwood, and the family had finally saved enough money to send him to college.I was awfully shy, but I did want to meet him.

“One of our class assignments was to cook meals in the cafeteria. It was near the end of the first quarter when my turn came. Maybe it was fate, I don’t know, but as I was walking by where he was sitting, he suddenly got up and bumped into me. That made me spill some water from the tray I was carrying. The others at his table begin to laugh because the water had gotten onto the front of his pants. I didn’t think it was funny, though. I hightailed it to the kitchen, put down the tray, and hurried back to my dorm room.”

“Then what happened?”

“Well, a couple of days later, he caught up to me on campus, apologized for laughing, told me his name was Charles Ashton, and asked me for a date. We got married the next June. It was his idea for the wedding to be on my birthday.”

Grandma answered a bunch more questions before she got around to the one Felicity had asked. “We didn’t have two nickels to rub together, right at first. Charles hadn’t done well in school, so he’d gone back to helping his folks on the farm. He owed some for his year at school, so couldn’t even buy wedding rings for us, except a couple he bought at the dime store. I still had a year left on my scholarship, but we had to eat, and pay rent on our tiny little apartment. We made it through, though.”

Smiling at Felicity. she said, “Having money isn’t the only way for people to be rich, Sweetheart. A loving husband and a beautiful family are as important as money.”  Then she added, “But money sure helps.”

The next question came from me, and to this day, I don’t know why I asked it. Thinking back, I suspect it was on other people’s minds, too.

Anyway, I said, “What happened to Grandpa Ashton?”

Now if you want to throw cold water on a party, that’s the kind of question that will do it. A lot of the people there knew the answer, but us kids didn’t, so it was important to me, anyway.

“Your grandpa was killed in a car accident twenty years ago,” she said softly. “He was taking his father’s old car somewhere to get it worked on when it happened.”  You could tell she was just about to cry when a pickup pulled into the parking lot near where we were sitting. The guy who got out was Bill Seekins, the Grangeville postmaster.

“Hate to bother you folks,” he said, “but this came in the mail this morning. Nobody picked up your mail today, Mrs. Ashton. I guess you were busy with other things. Knew it was a special day for you, and thought this might be something important.”  With that, he handed Grandma what looked like a fairly well-worn envelope.

“Thanks so much, Mr. Seekins,” said Grandma. “How about some cake and cider for your troubles.”

“Don’t mind if I do,” he replied. “And happy birthday. It’s number twenty-one isn’t it?”  

“Twenty-one and some months,” said Grandma. “For that you can have two pieces of cake.”

Some two-hundred and twenty-five miles to the north, up in Sandpoint, Rick Thomas was taking a break. Three days before, he’d begun work on the latest of the several old cars that he was restoring. When he’d seen the ad last Friday, Rick hoped it was exactly what he needed. On and off for almost a year now, he’d been working on the ‘52 Chevrolet Club Coupe that had been his grandfather’s. He needed to replace its right rear quarter panel. When Rick called the person who placed the ad offering for sale a damaged ‘52 Club Coupe, he learned that the damage to the car was confined to the driver’s side and front.

He drove down to Cottonwood the next morning before the sun was up, pulling the trailer he used for such purposes. The car, which had resided in a local barn for who knows how long,  appeared to be the same color as his grandfather’s had been, a dark emerald green, a real bonus. After he paid the man the $375 asking price, they got the car loaded onto the trailer, and he was back home in Sandpoint before sundown. It took quite a bit of juggling his other projects around in his workshop before he had room for the car, but he finally managed to squeeze it in next to the ‘52 he was working on. Except for the damages, the cars could have been twins. Perfect. He and Jessie had plans for Sunday, and his job would take him out of town Monday, so he could begin working on it the next day.

As soon as he got home and into his coveralls on Tuesday, he headed for the shop. The very first thing he did, which was the first thing he always did, was to go through the seats of the damaged cars he bought and worked on as a hobby. Over the years, he had found lots of change and other small items that easily slip from a pocket or purse. Once, he’d found a money clip holding four one-hundred-dollar bills, and another time he came across a pearl necklace. Both times he was able to return the items to their owners.

The driver’s seat in this car was in bad shape, but the passenger seat was intact, and yielded a quarter and two pennies. There was some paper wedged in between the two seats, too, and when he worked it out, he discovered it was an envelope. It was sealed and had a six-cent stamp on it, clearly ready to be mailed at the time it was lost. The letter was addressed simply, “Mrs. Charles Ashton, Grangeville, Idaho.”  There was no return address and no ZIP-code, which might not have been invented when the accident occurred.

Rick didn’t think twice about what to do with the letter. The envelope was old but should still survive the mails. He wasn’t sure that the Post Office would deliver it without a ZIP-code, but he had no way of finding it. He did put his return address on it, just in case. He rounded up a couple of stamps to make sure the postage was enough, too. Grangeville was a small town, so the people at the Post Office there should be able to direct it to the right person.

He took the letter out to the mailbox that stood at the end of the driveway, put the letter in, and flipped the red metal flag to the upright position. When he got back from his job in Sagle the next afternoon, the flag was down and the letter was gone–and was on its way, he hoped, to Mrs. Charles Ashton of Grangeville, Idaho.

As he sat there thinking about the letter, he wondered whether it had made it through.

“Who’s the letter from?” someone asked Grandma, who was looking at it oddly.

“I have no idea,” she replied. “There’s a return address in Sandpoint, but no name. But it’s addressed to me and…”  She stopped and stared at the envelope again. “It can’t be. It just can’t be.”

“What is it Mom?” said my dad. Grandma’s face was white as a sheet.

“The address. It’s in your father’s handwriting!  I’d recognize it anywhere. Charles addressed this to me himself. But that’s impossible.”  She handed the envelope to Dad. “Will you open it for me, David?  I don’t think I can right now.”

Dad took it from her, and as gently as possible he tore one end off the envelope. Inside was a single sheet of paper, on which writing could be seen on both sides. “And this is in my father’s handwriting, too,” he said. “This is incredible.”

Now this next part is hard for me to describe because of the feelings and emotions that were stirred up. Just take my word for it, it was the most moving thing that I’ve ever experienced, and I was only eleven at the time.

We’ve still got the letter. Dad read some of it aloud and so did Aunt Susan and Uncle Harold, Dad’s sister and brother. Grandma just sat and cried.

Here’s what the letter says.

I sure hope this gets there in time. I hope it’ll be surprise, too, mainly because I’m writing you a letter that I’ve not done for a long time, not since we were at school. Anyway Happy Fortieth Anniversary, Honey, Happy Birthday, too. What’s here is something that’s sort of forty years overdue.

I’m writing because you know how I am at saying things out loud but I do have some things I want to say to you that I should’ve said a lot more than I have.

The main thing is that I love you so much. I think you know that and I say it sometimes but not enough. I think I loved you from right at the first, well maybe not when you spilled the tray on me in the cafeteria, but pretty soon after that. I often wondered what you saw in me but you must’ve seen something and I’m sure glad you did. I don’t think I would’ve turned out to be an okay guy if you hadn’t been there to keep me going. Times were tough back then especially after we got married and Susan came along but you never gave up on me and I sure never gave up on you. I still don’t see how you did it with three kids to take care of and the job at Asker’s market and all.

There’s something that I need to apologize for right off. MargaretRose is the prettiest name I ever heard but I never said it like that unless I was talking to somebody about you or in a letter. I called you Maggie and Meg and Rosy and Honey and other stuff instead. I know you always wanted me to use your name and I can’t explain why I didn’t but from now on I promise I’ll call you MargaretRose except when I’m teasing you which I like to do, you know.

The forty years we’ve been married and the time before that while we were going together have been the best that I can imagine. You and Susan and David and Harold and the grandkids have made me feel like the luckiest guy in the world. You especially, MargaretRose. See, I can say it even though I’m writing it. Just pretend I said it out loud.

I’m writing this in kind of a hurry because I’m late, I need to get Dad’s Chevy into the shop in Cottonwood to get it ready for the Border Days car show next week and I’ll mail it on the way. I can’t quit this letter though before I tell you something that I heard on the radio yesterday and it says everything. It’s from a song, I don’t remember most of it but the part I’m talking about goes like this.

“For you are beautiful, I have loved you dearly, more dearly than the spoken word can tell.”

All my love forever, Charlie

Let me tell you, there wasn’t a dry eye there that afternoon except for some of the little kids. Even Mr. Seekins had his handkerchief out and was using it a lot.

But that’s not all. In the midst of all the bawling and carrying on, Miss Nosy Felicity managed to get hold of the envelope the letter had come in, and when she got to looking at it more closely she said, “Look everybody. There’s something else in here.”

With that she tilted the envelope up, and onto Grandma’s open palm there fell a beautiful diamond ring.